From soapbar to skunk: the ever increasing strength of cannabis

Cannabis herb and resin available in Ireland over twice as strong as a decade ago

Part of the €37.5m cannabis haul  seized at Dublin Port in 2017. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Part of the €37.5m cannabis haul seized at Dublin Port in 2017. Photograph: Cyril Byrne


According to a new Europe-wide study on cannabis potency, the drug is barely recognisable to what it was just a decade ago.

If you used cannabis in Ireland in the 1990s or early 2000s you were most likely smoking the gritty, unpleasant resin variation known as “soapbar”.

There’s also a good chance that soapbar was brought into the country by the criminal John Gilligan or one of his underlings.

Gilligan’s stranglehold on the trade and his elimination of the competition meant his brand of low-quality hashish, shipped in from Morocco, was for a period one of the only variants of cannabis available. Even the once ubiquitous herbal cannabis became vanishingly rare.

The active ingredient in cannabis is Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Soapbar tended to have a THC level of about six per cent. It also contained a considerable amount of cannabidiol (CBD) which largely counteracted the effect of the THC and resulted in a relatively mild high for the user.

Soapbar was also known for giving the smoker a headache and for containing little bits of plastic left over from the packaging process.

“That was the cheapest cannabis you could buy because the THC content was so low. They used to call it diesel because it actually smelt like diesel,” says David Marsh, a drug treatment worker with Coolmine addiction treatment centre.

In 2001, Gilligan was jailed for 28 years for importing cannabis. With the kingpin out of the way, the Irish market was suddenly re-opened to smaller-scale importers who began to sell a wide variety of cannabis types from the Middle East and north Africa.

Almost overnight herbal cannabis again became prevalent on the Irish market and it soon eclipsed resin. In 2006, gardaí made 3,587 seizures of cannabis herb compared to just 1,254 of resin.


At the same time herbal cannabis began to grow in strength and in price. Highly potent strains such as skunk also began to be linked with psychosis in some users, particularly teenagers and those with underlying mental health issues.

Also in the 2000s, growhouses, run and staffed by foreign nationals (many of them working in slave-like conditions) were set up around Ireland. They produced a cheaper product as they cut out the dangerous and expensive importation process.

In response, the Moroccan resin producers increased the potency of their product while keeping the price the same. They were able to do this by devising more efficient methods of extracting the resin from the cannabis plant.

The result of these market forces is that cannabis herb and resin is now more than twice as strong as the same product a decade ago but costs about the same.

It also contains much less CBD which balances out the THC. According to Gary Broderick of the Soal Project, an inner city Dublin drug treatment centre, this puts users at greater risk of mental health issues, including psychosis.

“Cannabis is a completely different drug to what is was before. Now first-time users are going in straight at a high-level of strength.

“If you’re going to have to choose a drug for your child to be using, cannabis might not be the most risky. It’s certainly the most socially acceptable. But mental health is the potential price you might have to pay and people aren’t really aware of that.”